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Preserving a Way of Life

Posted on May 24, 2016 by Maple Creek

The Story Pool by Madonna Hamel

When I first drove through Val Marie I was with my youngest sister. We had both left Toronto, both returning west, about to start our lives all over again. We arrived from Montana, our little caravan of two cars having driven across America. The border crossing felt cute and quaint, after my initial crossing in Detroit which involved a litany of questions, insinuations, glares and renewed questioning, as if trying to trip me up. I was used to it, having scurried across every couple of months to be with my American beau. For nine years I got the ninth degree. “How many years have you known him?” interrogated one stern border guard. “Why aren’t you married yet?” I held my tongue, this is no place for jokes or clever repartee, but what I wanted to say was: “What are you, my mother?”
But the Montana crossing at Monchy was different. All that existed was a small carport with a roll up garage door on either end. That was it. Carport, cubicle for the guard and thousands of miles of grass and hills surrounding it. My sister, all her life crammed into her dinky little compact, pulled up first beside the carport. Immediately the Canadian guard gestured her to back up and pull into the carport.
His exasperation was like that of a child trying to get his friends to play along correctly in a game of his devising: You go into the time machine, in, not around, geesh! No doubt the mistake had been made before.
After the initial faux pas we sailed through. I had to pull over and look around. The feeling I had was as if I were in a remote part of Ireland or Scotland. The land was green and I remember being fascinated by all the rocks. Now I know some of them are erratics, dragged and dropped by receding glaciers. But at the time they seemed like dozens of random headstones. Of course, they could well be resting atop the graves of any number of extinguished creatures: human, animal, or feathered. Remnants, also, of the architecture of an era.
Meeting me and my sister on the front steps of The Convent Inn was another sister who drove from Medicine Hat a few hours away to greet us and join us in the remainder of our journey westward to Kelowna, BC. The Convent once served as both day and boarding school from the 30’s to the 60’s and my mother attended as a child. (Unbeknownst to me, I would one day be living and writing at the convent as artist-in-residence for three months!) After we hugged and unpacked we decided to take a walk, drawn to the village elevator.
When I look back on that first day in Val Marie, just a sleepover, with miles to go before we could really rest, I’m amazed how present the elevator was in my consciousness. Despite its silence and dormancy, it stood like a sentinel, like a sleeping friendly giant watching over the village. My favourite photograph of our first time in mom’s hometown is of the tops of the heads of my sisters, turned upward, gawking up at the quiet architectural wonder, a remnant of an era.
Canadians who have never lived on the prairie, especially city folk, have a soft spot for grain elevators. Because, nothing says CANADA! like an elevator. I’ve traversed this country seven times by train and must have a hundred photographs of elevators lining the tracks, still waiting for a train to pull up and receive its bounty. And some still do. However more of them no longer exist. I am fairly certain that the slides and photographs from my first trip in 1980 are all that remains of them.
At the time of my travels along the long stretches of the plain, an elevator looming on the far horizon was as welcome and mysterious and beautiful as I imagine the gracious cathedrals of remote villages were for the pilgrims of Europe. And definitely more awe-inspiring than the looming monoliths of commerce and industry that pierce the skylines of cities today. In fact, the forces behind those worldly edifices are, in a large way, with their all-progress-is-good-progress approach to living, responsible for the demise of the elevators and the train tracks leading up to them, and anything or anyone else unwilling or unable to be dragged into the fast lane with them.
The tendency to romanticize elevators, and what they stand for, literally and figuratively, is alive and strong, even as the elevators themselves get torn down, one by one. But it’s not enough just to photograph them and make huge books for urban coffee tables to assuage our sense of nostalgia. Thankfully, as is often the case, when a cultural icon is on the precipice of extinction, someone makes an urgent call for action to save and restore them. In Val Marie, that someone is Maurice Lemire.
Maurice’s father was a Wheat Pool agent in Val Marie. As a child Maurice would help out around the elevator, and when he wasn’t helping, he was playing, or just hanging around, watching the big horse teams hauling in the loads from the farms. The bigger the cart and the stronger the horses, the larger the load and the nicer the payoff. The elevator was a beehive of activity, all year round. After weighing and dumping and elevating the various grains into their respective bins the men would walk down the little ramp into the tiny annexed office hut. In the centre of the tin-walled  hut was sits a coal stove and a desk and several chairs. The hut was a hub, the farmer’s coffee row in the morning, and last stop after the hotel bar closed at night.
A few years back Maurice and his partner Patricia decided to form a committee to raise money to save the elevator. They began with a new paint job. Today, the committee is gearing up for a fundraiser to revive the office ‘hut’ back to life and eventually restore the giant. We’re not the most organized of committees. Random calls and texts have been flying all over the place for the last month, like: “Did you order the buns for the midnight lunch, or did I?” “The meeting was last night? I thought it was tonight, oops.” “Did that guy at the cafe really say he’d donate a car?!” “Why don’t we have a midnight bingo game?” “Can you hang some posters in Swift Current?” “Apparently I’m the MC, who knew?” But slowly and surely the whole event is coming together.
And here’s what we’ve got: A dance with live music with ‘Too Darn Hot’, storytellers, a live auction, some theatre, an evening lunch and a good visit! To be held at The Palais Royale. Tickets $20 in advance. $25 at the door. Starts at 7 p.m. Call the village office for more details 306-298-2009. Or email me, I’m part of the crew and I’ll be sharing some of the apron stories I’ve collected over the year.
One night, standing under the elevator, watching a full moon rise over its right shoulder, it hit me: Isn’t it funny how the most beautiful buildings are the empty ones? The old homesteads, the little white Lutheran church on Highway 4, with wedding bows still attached to pews, this elevator. On my little tour with Maurice he told me about a man from Frontier who donated $1800.00 to the first fundraiser to clean and paint the old elevator.
“He handed me the cheque with tears in his eyes,” said Maurice, with tears in his eyes. “Here take this, he said, I just wish I’d done something to save ours. It’s gone now, they tore it down.”
His story reminded me of a pivotal scene in Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’. A business magnate is trying to buy out Mr. Fezziwig, young Scrooge’s benevolent boss. Fezziwig describes why he decides not to sell or expand, despite the profit he could make:
“There’s more to life than money, sir. This is about honouring and preserving a way of life. No, I can’t see me giving over to the vested interest, Sir.” Unfortunately, forces prevent him from keeping his small family business. ‘Progress’ and its breakneck pace take over.
Maurice was around to see the transition from horse drawn carts to trucks loading grain into the village elevator. Now, he’s here to see the transition from dormant elevator to a revived and re-animated home to artifacts and stories and visitors wanting to sit and talk awhile. A home that honours and preserves a way of life that can be shared with others like me who are straining to escape the fray of speedy and complicated living, where, as the poet David Whyte observes, velocity becomes the sole means of dealing with complexities; where anything moving slower than you escapes your vision. Like, say, grain elevators.
If you can’t make it to the shindig on June 3rd, come by anyway. Drop off some squares for our midnight lunch. Or bid over the phone for the auction. After the 3rd, keep checking in with us on our facebook page dedicated the Val Marie Grain Elevator. Barring that, come stand beneath the sentinel giant watching over us all, and watch the moon rise his over its beautiful shoulder.
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at madonna hamel@hotmail.com

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